| August 9, 2012

Festival-goers revel at taxpayers' expense

At an OCPA speech in Tulsa and in other venues, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has said: "Never take a dollar from a free citizen through the coercion of taxation without a very legitimate purpose. We have a solemn duty to spend that dollar as carefully as possible because, when we took it, we diminished that person's freedom."

Even though Oklahoma government spending was already at an all-time high, the political leaders who crafted the FY-2013 budget decided to spend even more money. But is there "a very legitimate purpose" behind all this spending? Is all this money — more than $500 per second — being spent "as carefully as possible"?

The Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department (OTRD) is an example of an agency working hard to use taxpayer dollars wisely. Whether it has been the wise release of state parks with intensely local functions or leveraging OTRD products such as Oklahoma Today magazine to minimize use of taxpayer funds, the OTRD has been a recent leader for other state agencies. The OTRD is even reducing the amount of taxpayer funds used for losses on state golf courses, reviewing and restructuring its fleet usage to achieve efficiencies, and implementing other innovative cost-cutting measures.

Given the exemplary action of the OTRD, it is disappointing that the broken culture of the state budget process has been forced upon the OTRD.

According to the recently enacted budget bill, the OTRD is to receive taxpayer general revenue funds for the upcoming fiscal year. The bill provides the following:

SECTION 115. There is hereby appropriated to the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department from any monies not otherwise appropriated from the General Revenue Fund of the State Treasury for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2013, the sum of Twenty-one Million Eight Hundred Three Thousand Three Dollars ($21,803,003.00) or so much thereof as may be necessary to perform the duties imposed upon the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department by law.

The OTRD is responsible for operating and maintaining state parks, promoting tourism and other duties. Given the responsibilities of the OTRD, citizens and taxpayers will no doubt be disheartened to learn that the OTRD has been instructed by individual lawmakers to “pass through” some of its funds to other entities. This instruction was not transparently provided for in the agency’s budget bill.

According to a letter that was sent to the OTRD by lawmakers, the OTRD is to allocate $25,000 to the Red Earth Festival. Since FY-2000, the Red Earth Festival has received more than $455,000 in earmarks from state taxpayer dollars. While the goals of the Red Earth Festival are noble, so are countless other non-profit organizations and festivals that operate without state taxpayer dollars. For example, the nationally-known Rush Springs Watermelon Festival is reported to attract more than 30,000 visitors and will be conducted without a special earmark. According to the Oklahoma Tourism Department’s website, there are approximately 955 events including festivals that take place across the state and the vast majority of them do NOT receive state taxpayer funds. Further, state taxpayers already have spent significant amounts on endeavors similar to the Red Earth Festival, such as the $67 million or more already spent on the Native American Cultural Education Authority and the additional $1.3 million in operational funds this year alone (not to mention the additional bonds the NACEA is requesting from state taxpayers).

From our perspective, coerced taxpayer funding for certain festivals is outside the core purposes of government. State Government should not be in the position of picking winners and losers in Oklahoma’s tourism industry by selectively giving state taxpayer dollars to a select few festivals. Further, in our meetings with citizens across the state about the spending priorities of the state and the core functions of government, state taxpayer funding for festivals has not been mentioned as permissible or a priority.

This non-transparent earmark is yet another example from the state’s deeply flawed budget that resulted from a process many lawmakers have said is shameful, outdated and in need of reform. We applaud those lawmakers who are working to reform the budget process and we hope their colleagues will also remember their “solemn duty” and end funds for festivals.

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